Following on from last week’s post I wanted to keep the discussion about children and crime going. We are in the 21st century and still adults use children to commit crimes like some Dickensian Fagin. They manipulate them or at times force them to steal, whether it’s shop lifting, housebreaking or standing watch while adults commit crimes. Of course and rightly so, children, if charged receive a lesser sentence. Until the age of eight children are deemed to not have the mental reasoning to differentiate between right and wrong. Between eight and ten they can be held responsible for their actions and if they have committed murder for instance then the system may look at placing them under some control. After ten there is no excuse for not understanding the results of their actions, unless they have some mental impairment. Generally it is only those in their early teens who end up being institutionalised.
In my police work I came across cases where children were shoved through doggy doors, or tiny bathroom windows to enter houses and unlock doors, enabling the older offenders to gain entry. They were usually teenagers using their underage siblings, who of course would continue in the family tradition. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to realise that young children brought up in these circumstances will one day be adult offenders. It brings us to,
The Birdman, Mervyn John Thompson, was convicted in April 1965 for, as the judge put it, ‘A Most Bestial Killing.’ He murdered and raped 54-year-old widow, Vera Fearn the station mistress at Gailes railway station. At that time she lived in the railway house on site, the highway ran past it and the area wasn’t as populated as it is today. In the papers of the day Thompson, 26 was arrested in Parramatta, Sydney in Fearn’s car with some youths after a high-speed chase. He readily admitted that he killed her, and his brief stated, ‘he was a victim of his environment.’ In cases like this, that line was always thrown out by defence Barristers, I think it was a true statement. He was also found fit to plead guilty and was deemed to have a psychopathic personality. I don’t want to go into details about what happened to the poor woman, suffice to say that no one should endure what happened to her, alive or dead. The other interesting thing is it was always believed he had an accomplice over the weekend the crimes were committed.
Birdy as he was known had been in jail ten years by the time I started at the prison and a more sullen, uncommunicative, hulking brute you’d ever wish to see. He didn’t walk, he lumbered head pulled down into his shoulders, glaring at all and sundry. He didn’t ‘play well with others’ and was given a job making concrete besser blocks in the area between the cell block and the bakery. He had his own little hut, cement mixer and implements and happily went about his work. At times other prisoners would be assigned to work with him when more blocks were needed. Nobody wanted anything to do with him, especially when they found out what he was in for. Now animals weren’t allowed inside prisons at the time, except for guard dogs. There was a stray cat (of the feline variety) that lived in the main store. Birdy was given permission to have a pet budgie. I’ll tell you now he was no Robert Stroud of Alcatraz fame, he kept Budge as he called him in a cage outside in the block yard. While he worked Budge would be hopping around on his shoulder, climbing on his head and pulling on the hairs that grew out of his ears.
Birdy rarely spoke and kept to himself, the only highlights in his life were a fortnightly visit from his elderly Mum and whenever he got a new packet of birdseed. Visiting days are special in jail, mainly on weekends in the afternoon. Between the end of lunch and one pm the showers worked overtime. The place hummed as prisoners tarted themselves up, ironed their best uniform then hung around waiting to be called. From the officer’s perspective it meant work, visits had to be overseen, prisoners had to be escorted back and forth to the visiting area, inside for inside workers and out in the open air for the others. Birdy’s Mum would turn up bang on time, a short, dumpy woman she carried the burden of her son’s transgressions. No matter the weather she would be there, white hair freshly permed, wearing thick glasses and a winter coat. She always clutched her handbag to her chest and when she sat down at the long table opposite her son would put it in front of her.
Now you had to have eyes on stalks to keep up with the goings on, prisoners and visitors had to stay apart, they were allowed a quick hug and a kiss on arrival and departure. At the end of the visit the prisoners were searched prior to going back to the compound. If you suspected anything had been passed you could perform a strip search. Back to Birdy, within five minutes of his Mum sitting down it would be on. After he’d asked if she’d brought his coffee and Minties, she was into him. First the verbal abuse, her anger was a thing to behold and he’d sit there and try to interject. Then the physical abuse started, I don’t know if her handbag had been lead-lined but she wielded it like a hammer thrower, whack! whack! whack! over his head and shoulders. He’d wrap his arms around his head and dodge about half of them, that ones that landed must’ve hurt. This happened every visit, year after year. We’d let her get it off her chest then suggest she was upsetting the other visitors, after we became sick of hearing him call out, ‘No Mum,’ repeatedly.
I had no idea about his upbringing or Mum’s circumstances but I know one thing, she wasn’t happy with little Mervyn at all. As you would expect Birdy had been prescribed medication for whatever psychiatric disorder he suffered from. There was only one prison officer medic and he worked five shifts a week, so that left a lot of time for the prisoner medic to dispense medications. He was a trusty and always came across as a smart arse, I digress, pill parade was usually overseen by the Senior’s off-sider. The inmate would come up to the window: be identified get his drugs, put them in his mouth, swallow, open his mouth and leave. A lot of them also took Chloral Hydrate in liquid form to help them sleep. Birdy had a plan, apparently he had been hiding his pills in his rather voluminous cheeks, then spat them out later and hid them in his cell.
The best laid plans of mice and men go astray, Birdy took his overdose the night we went out on strike. The shift walked off and local police came in, they took our word for the headcount and that they were all locked away. They removed themselves to the officer’s mess, cooked steak dinners and settled down for some late night TV. They found Birdy mid morning the following day, he was lying on the floor curled up dead. From what we could gather he took enough pills that when the first headcount was due, he would be found and transported to hospital. Bad luck Birdy, fate intervened and took you from your torment. The general consensus was this: Birdy’s co-offender who was never brought to trial had not long been released from the jail after serving a couple of years for other offences. It’s believed that they’d hatched a plan for Birdy to be taken to the hospital and then he would be sprung. Perhaps his death was for the better, at his sentencing the Judge stated that he never be released.
Nobody liked living in Birdy’s cell after that. He’d sweated profusely in his death throes and the salts in his sweat had soaked his outline into the concrete floor. It remained there for a long time, along with Birdy’s ghost. No matter what the air temperature the area inside and outside the cell stayed extremely cool. Late at night was always the worst, whenever we had a new officer start we’d send him up to walk along the landing. They always came back with the same story, ‘Bloody cold up there.’
Was Birdy born bad? Or did something or someone fail him in his early nurturing? Either way he committed his offences as an adult with free will, or was his mental state such that he was easily persuaded? He knows and can’t be asked, I however feel very sad about the demise of Vera Fearn. A woman working alone in a then isolated area, without a telephone. She’d approached her bosses to have them install one in her house but her fears were dismissed out of hand. Birdy had burgled the house that night, would Vera have been any safer with a telephone? As an aside I wonder about the budgie, did Birdy have an affinity with the creature? Did he take pleasure knowing that when he was locked away so was the bird? Was it a symbol of his incarceration? I think that Budge, after Birdy’s death was adopted by an officer.
Appendix: The term Cat when used in prison slang is the name given to prisoners who engage in homosexual activity.